Rome: Total War (PC, Mac)
Based on Creative Assembly’s 3D game engine for real-time strategy, this third title in the Total War series was one of the best strategy games of all time. You could zoom in on a company of soldiers, or zoom out to see a full 3D battlefield with thousands of soldiers. The action unfolded in real-time as you marched your units across rivers or ridges. You could pull out further to view a map of the Roman empire and figure out where to send your armies next. This title made strategy gaming much more emotional and stressful — and a lot more fun.
Where are they now?: Rome: Total War II debuted last year with awesome new graphics and a huge strategic map that covered the span of the entire Roman empire. Creative Assembly, now part of Sega, fulfilled its vision of creating a game that could scale from an individual soldier to a giant battle.
Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines (PC)
Troika’s Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines offered an impressively open-ended campaign set against a vampiric society just behind the scenes of a modern-day Los Angeles. The game was an adaptation of the tabletop role-playing campaign from White Wolf publishing, and managed to successfully carry over a grand sense of choice and mission variation. Not only could you talk, woo, threaten, or bribe your way around most conflicts, your chosen vampire Clan could have a dramatic impact on your play-style. The ghoulish Nosferatu couldn’t survive long amongst humans without alerting the police, and insane Malkavian vampires could wind up having a full (if one-sided) conversation with a stop sign. Bloodlines was a game begging to be explored and played almost in perpetuity, and it retains an active fan base and modding following to this day.
Where are they now?: Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines was the first third-party game released on Valve’s new Source engine of the time. That made for some impressive physics, but crippling bugs. The release day competition with Half-Life 2 was too steep, and Bloodlines severely under-performed for publisher Activision. Troika closed in February 2005, three months after the game’s release.
Fight Night 2004 (Xbox, PlayStation 2)
It took 2 damned decades of boxing video games for someone to finally nail a control scheme that made punching intuitive. Fight Night 2004 introduced the “Total Punch Control” system, which took full advantage of the Xbox and PlayStation 2 dual analog controls. All of the boxer’s movement are delegated to the left control stick, while all punches are handled off of the right. Punch type, speed, and angle are determined by how the player pushes the right analog stick. This makes the sweet science of dodging, weaving, and sticking an opponent in the kidneys feel incredibly fluid and engaging compared to the old method of slapping buttons. At the time it was definitely one of those, “so obvious I wish I had thought of it first” design innovations.
Where are they now?: EA Sports developed four more sequels to the series: Fight Night Round 2 (2005 — Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube), Fight Night Round 3 (2006 — PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Xbox 360, PSP), Fight Night Round 4 (2009 — PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) and Fight Night Champion (2011 — PlayStation 3, Xbox 360). The latter title modified the “Total Punch Control” system for what it would call a “Full Spectrum Punch Control” scheme. What’s the difference? Instead of rolling the right analog stick, players simply flick it to activate a punch. It sounds minor, but when decisions are made in milliseconds, any advantage in getting moves out quicker counts. Now, if only EA Sports could flick out a next gen update sometime in the next year or so.
ESPN NFL 2K5 (PlayStation 2, Xbox)
Up until 2004, developer Visual Concept’s football series was always playing catchup to Electronic Art’s seemingly unstoppable Madden games. But that changed with ESPN NFL 2K5. Not only was it an excellent game — I spent hours playing with the speedy QB Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons, watching automated halftime shows packed with highlight reels, and decorating my mansion with trophies and scores of team-specific trinkets — but it also had an insanely low price. Publisher 2K Games released NFL 2K5 for $20, costing considerably less than the competition (Madden NFL 2005 retailed for $50 before EA slashed it to $30 in response).
I’m not a hardcore sports fan, but even I couldn’t pass that up.
Where are they now? EA must’ve been scared of NFL 2K5, because in 2005, the company bought the exclusive NFL video game rights from the league and the NFL Players Association, killing off the 2K series and any other developer’s chances of making an authentic football game for consoles. Visual Concepts briefly tried to resurrect NFL 2K in 2007 with All-Pro Football 2K8, which used former NFL players (the deal doesn’t covered retired players) and fictional teams, but that only lasted for one game. The developer is now known more for its critically acclaimed NBA 2K basketball games as well as for co-developing the WWE 2K wrestling titles with Yuke’s.
Tekken 5 (Arcade)
“Heihachi Mishima is dead.” Tekken’s evil patriarch didn’t even wait one game to make his return, but that statement did herald a hallmark installment in the 3D fighting franchise. Tekken 5 introduced the best batch of newcomers in franchise history: Jin’s unrefined cousin Asuka Kazama, the kenpo master Feng Wei, Wesley Snipes Raven, and later on the regal Lilli and brutal Sergei Dragunov. The game also furthered its reputation for eye candy with models that still look good today and gorgeous stages set in burning temples and moonlit wildernesses. Developer Namco also introduced new incentives such as PS2 controller compatibility and profile cards to lure fans back into the arcade. If you’re lucky, you can probably still find a cabinet at your local bowling alley or university student union.
Where are they now? Tekken is no longer the king of the genre it was in the early 2000s — that title is easy to hold when your competition is The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact and Capcom Fighting Evolution. During the Evolution 2014 fighting-game tournament, however, Producer Katsuhiro Harada announced the franchise’s seventh chapter in a bid to reclaim the throne.